Marshall McLuhan: The Great Prognosticator

Marshall McLuhan, scholar, writer and social theorist

Marshall McLuhan: The Great Prognosticator

I’ve been reading a new biography on Marshall McLuhan, the Canadian educator, scholar and social theorist who is notable for having predicted the rise of the Internet years before Al Gore or anyone else took credit for inventing it.

The succinct biography, Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work! by Douglas Coupland [ISBN-10: 1935633163 ... also available in a Kindle edition], is quite interesting and I definitely recommend it for anyone interested in mass communications and popular culture.

Reading this biography, one gets the impression that McLuhan was a man who correctly predicted a good deal of the world of communications in which we live today. Not only did he forecast the rise of the web 30 years before it came about, he was the one who coined the expression “the medium is the message” … and who spoke about the “global village” long before Hilary Clinton came on the scene.

It turns out that this extraordinary thinker led a pretty conventional life, actually. Born in Edmonton, AB, he spent the better part of his career in Canada, although it was as a visiting professor at St. Louis University where he met his future wife, with whom he would have six children. (Born an Anglican, McLuhan was influenced by the writings of G. K. Chesterton and had converted to Roman Catholicism by his late 20s.)

Although trained as an academician in Canada and at Cambridge – and being on the faculty at prestigious educational institutions like the University of Toronto where he eventually had his own research center – the demands of raising a large family drove McLuhan to more financially lucrative work in the advertising field as well. He also had consulting stints at large corporations like AT&T and IBM.

Although passionate about and partial to his teaching and academic work, it was as an ad industry personality that McLuhan probably made his biggest mark.

As early as 1951, McLuhan published a book of essays called The Mechanical Bride, which analyzed various examples of “persuasion” in contemporary popular culture.

In his 1964 book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, McLuhan coined the phrase “the medium is the message” as he wrote of the influence of communications media independent of their content. He contended that media affect society in which they play a role not by the content they deliver, but by the characteristics of the media themselves. True enough.

And how did McLuhan come to predict the rise of the Internet? It was right there in his 1962 book The Gutenberg Galaxy, which attempted to reveal how communications technology – alphabetic writing, printing presses, electronic media — affects cognitive organization and, in turn, social organization. Here’s what he had to say:

“The next medium, whatever it is – it may be the extension of consciousness – will include television as its environment, and it will transform television into an art form. A computer as a research and communication instrument could enhance retrieval, obsolesce mass library organization, retrieve the individual’s encyclopedic function and flip into a private line to speedily tailored data of a saleable kind.”

Remember, this was written in 1962!

McLuhan also used the term “surfing” in a way that seems uncannily similar to its meaning today – in his case, using the word “surfing” to refer to rapid, irregular and multidimensional movement through a body of knowledge.

More books would come from McLuhan’s pen in subsequent years, including:

 The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects (McLuhan’s best seller)
War and Peace in the Global Village
From Cliché to Archetype

All of these volumes sound pretty fascinating – definitely ones to explore in the future, although the biography provides good synopses of their contents.

It is difficult to think of someone that has had more influence over the world of media and advertising than Marshall McLuhan. Sure, there are people like David Ogilvy, but his influence has been confined almost exclusively to the advertising industry alone.

By contrast, the McLuhan’s biographer contends that McLuhan influenced scads of writers and critical thinkers – I was pleased to see Camille Paglia among them – along with politicians like Pierre Elliott Trudeau and Jerry Brown. McLuhan was even named a “patron saint” of Wired Magazine, and a quote of his appeared on the publication’s masthead during the first decade of its publication.

And finally, it’s nice to discover that McLuhan’s years in academia have been given their due as well: The University of Toronto has continued his work by running a center at the school named, appropriately, the McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology.

One Response

  1. McLuhan was certainly prescient. He had an uncanny knack for reading cultural tea leaves and peering into the future.
    But how about Owen D. Young, diplomat, politician (he ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in ’32) and founder of RCA? In 1929, he was named Time magazine’s Man Of The Year for his “Young Plan,” an arrangement that helped Germany reorganize its onerous WWI reparations, mandated by the Treaty of Versailles. In their cover story, Time made the following comment: “Never a technician, [Young] is nonetheless obsessed with the idea that some day it may be possible to write a message on a pad at one’s desk or bedside and have it instantaneously transmitted to the addressee anywhere on earth.” That was in 1929!

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